Notes from the Assembly Line

At the Ford Rouge plant, it's one new American dream a minute.

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Friday is the only day in a two-week span when there’s no news coming
out of NAIAS, except for the fact that the Barenaked Ladies are playing
the $400-a-head Charity Preview (which — let’s be honest — would only
be news if this were 1998).

But the dearth of auto show happenings is welcome. The day between the
end of the industry preview and the start of the public show is the
perfect time to explore The Automobile outside the confines of the COBO
Center’s concrete walls.

In the quest to better understand the American car, the Ford Rouge
Factory Tour in nearby Dearborn seems as good a place as any. The root
of the problem, or the source of salvation. But, this being Detroit, to
understand a car I first had to rent one.

I go to the Enterprise branch closest to the COBO, which is on the
first floor of the Renaissance Center, home to General Motors’ global
headquarters. After I sign some paperwork, Tony, the manager, walks me
outside.

“There it is,” he says, pointing to a powder-blue PT Cruiser. I don’t
say anything, but I don’t need to. “I wouldn’t worry too much about
it,” Tony offers. “You’re only going to have it for a few hours.” He
pauses. “And it’s all we have right now anyway.” I’m not crazy about
the idea of driving a car so whimsical and merry to a Ford plant that
manufactures only gigantic trucks, but, when life hands you a
power-blue PT Cruiser…

Twenty minutes and two highways later, I’m in Dearborn. The Rouge
Factory here was Henry’s baby, an almost self-sufficient industrial
complex that shipped in natural resources from the company’s quarries,
mines, and forests, and produced many of the materials that went into
the company’s cars. Today it’s where the F150 pickup is assembled.

On the tour, visitors travel along a walkway elevated above the
assembly floor, and watch F-150s being put together by both man (rubber
linings, visors) and machines (windshields). There are 250 stations
along the 4-mile line, with one to four people at each; a truck passes
each station at the rate of about one per minute. It’s a mesmerizing
process, hundreds of workers screwing things onto or gluing things into
doors, beds, and cabs.

The tour is self-guided, but there are attendants posted along the
walkway who are happy to answer questions, even those they think you
should know. Surprising things are learned in these interactions, among
them the fact that working on an assembly line, you don’t always have
the same task day in and day out — you can rotate with other members of
your team (e.g. headliner install, door build, cab exterior
ornamentation).

And the fact that trucks come down the line based on dealer orders,
which is why the colors are all mixed up. (So no, a guide explains,
it’s not just “random.”)

And the fact that if someone isn’t back at his station when the line
starts up after a break, his tools detect the absence and the line
shuts back down. (So no, the same guide explains, it’s actually not a
lot like I Love Lucy.)

The Rouge Factory Tour is part of a network of attractions that
includes an IMAX theater and the Henry Ford Museum. The museum is not
that of the Ford company, but rather one of American ideas and
innovation. Its entrance is a full-size replica of Independence Hall.
Inside there’s a bed Washington slept on during the war, the chair
Lincoln sat on when he was shot in the head, and the car Kennedy rode
in when he was shot in the head.

These are objects that lack any real intrinsic value, when compared
with the extrinsic value given them by the actions that happened in or
on them. This is the case with many things found in many other museums, where something’s displayed just because famous/important person X did Y to or with it.

So how does any of this relate to cars? Because it’s the same kind of value Ford is trying to impose on its
products. There’s this idea (and Ford isn’t alone in pushing it) that
buying American is buying a piece of history, is helping define the
culture. One of the company’s concept cars back at NAIAS is even
called the Ford Explorer America.

But this is a false value. While it’s true that cars do have a role in
the country’s history and help define its culture, they do so because
they’re not pre-loaded with those expectations. History and cultural
significance can’t be forced; they just happen. On the tour, a film on
Henry Ford’s life explains that he built “cars that became not only
classics, but symbols of the American experience.” That’s true, but
they did so not because people chose to define them as such symbols,
but because they simply liked the cars and bought them.

Ford’s had a rough go of it lately. The company is expected to announce
next week yet another quarterly loss, and has had just one profitable
quarter in two years. The fact that F-150s are only built to order is a
reminder of just how closely tied those 1,100 people on the assembly
floor are to the fickle tastes of car shoppers, who, as NAIAS is
showing, are finding an ever-widening array of options before them.

But most of the country stopped caring a long time ago whether
something was Made in America. It’s not until hundreds of dogs and cats
die from tainted pet food, or toys are found to contain lead paint, that anyone questions where something
comes from, and those worries don’t end up lasting all that long,
anyway. Even the current frenzy for locally-produced food isn’t so much
about supporting America as it is about supporting local economies and
minimizing the environmental impact of food production.

And while we’re on the topic, a note, the only note on The Environment
that will appear here — since so much has already been said elsewhere
about cars and the environment at NAIAS when, really, there’s not all
that much to say. The Rouge plant claims to have the world’s largest “living” roof above its F-150 factory, an environmental initiative that covers 10.4 acres with a succulent plant called sedum. This is a nice enough
gesture, though you’d imagine a factory making some of the largest cars in the world would have a pretty big roof.

Maybe Ford could earn a little more
goodwill from visitors if it, say, helped invest in some kind of public
transportation in the area. So that people didn’t have to take $50 cab
rides from the airport to downtown Detroit. So that people didn’t feel
stuck in their hotels. So that people didn’t have to waste gas driving
powder-blue PT Cruisers to its factory tours. • 19 January 2008

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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